This May I was able to fulfill a dream from my childhood of traveling down the Amazon River…well, a piece of the Amazon just out of Manaus, Brazil. Although it was a mission trip through our partner, Ray of Hope, my heart was as set on seeing enormous snakes hanging from trees, boating dangerously close to menacing crocodiles, spotting monkeys swinging through the trees and fishing for piranha as it was on helping children.
This spring saw the heaviest rains and flooding Brazil has experienced in decades, at or near record levels. As we boated from village to village, we witnessed impoverished families struggling to cope with the rising waters by building elevated, make-shift floors above their existing ones. Most of them live in small one or two room wooden houses with outhouses and sleep on hammocks. With the river waters engulfing their homes, cooking, bathing and using the toilet were all happening in the same polluted proximity. Despite their efforts, several confided that Cayman crocodiles and snakes were uninvited but frequent guests in their homes, also searching for dry ground.
One of our band of intrepid adventurers – Kelly Minter (a gifted speaker, musician, author, and as authentic a Christian young woman as you are ever apt to encounter) – had a moment with a child worth telling and retelling:
I was leading worship in one of the schools, looking out over a sea of beautiful, bright eyed children when I caught a glimpse a boy who was sullen and downcast, his mouth barely forming the words to the song “Blessed Be Your Name”. His sadness was striking against the chorus of joyful children – poor, but joyful – who sang out around him. While strumming my guitar and poorly attempting Portuguese worship I made a plan to meet him after our small service. I found him standing on the edge of the school dock, which was already almost underwater due to the severe Amazon flooding. Through the help of a translator I told him that I believed God had significant plans for him to be a leader in his village and that God had singled him out to me during worship. He nodded slightly. I went on to say that he seemed very sad to me. At this he began to speak, “I am very sad and scared because I’m the second oldest of ten children and my older brother has gone to Manaus to find work. The waters are quickly rising and our house is almost flooded. We don’t have much food left and I feel the responsibility to care for everyone.” We went back and forth in conversation and I prayed for Him, acknowledging that I believed God was going to give him the strength to lead and care for his family at such a young age. After we prayed he said, “No one has ever seen me before. God sent you here to ’see’ me.”
Yes, these amazing children need to be clothed, fed, told about the love of Christ, helped, healed, and loved. But sometimes they just need to be seen. I was so thankful that God gave me eyes to see that day. Really see.
Seeing children in need and making sure those children know they are seen is foundational to everything else JMI does. The French philosopher and advocate for outcasts, Simone Weil, poignantly expressed that transactional moment when those who see and those who receive the gift of being seen, connect: “When we are in affliction, it is God in us who loves those who wish us well. Compassion and gratitude come down from God, and when they are exchanged in a glance, God is present at the point where the eyes of those who give and those who receive meet.”
Every year we hear from volunteers who minister to Moldovan orphans describe such moments when their eyes meet those of a child and grace is tangibly exchanged between them. It is the modern day equivalent of touching the hem of Jesus’ garment.
We who have experienced such moments have the sensation of having our souls healed of self-absorption and feel freedom from the burden of our materialistic culture. And when we return home and have some time to reflect, we wonder: were we the ones sent to see or the ones sent to be seen?!